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5 stars


The Way of the Gun is one of my favorite smaller, less heralded crime pictures, and this opening scene is a master class in getting your attention while introducing protagonists. I stumbled on it recently and thought I’d re-post or write some reviews on some of my favorite small crime flicks. The criteria necessarily rules out epics like The Godfathers, Goodfellas and Casino, or any of the Hitchcock pictures, as well as anything from Tarantino, whose first two pictures were the gold standard of crime pics. His notoriety, however, makes a recommendation of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction a waste of typeface. I want to focus on pictures that may have gone unnoticed.

With The Way of the Gun, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie assuredly expended the juice he’d earned writing The Usual Suspects to helm this noir-ish tale of a couple of fuck-ups (Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillipe) who engineer a kidnapping with slapdash bravado and brutality. They have no idea the forces at play, and the greatest joy in the flick is their dogged aplomb as shit just gets worse and worse. These two losers are decent in the moment, but as exemplified in the movie’s best exchange, not exactly master planners:


Scenes like this one exemplify McQuarrie’s insistence on rejecting the cool in favor of the absurd. But that doesn’t mean he can’t direct an action sequence, and the final shootout is one for the ages. The film is also aided by Joe Kraemer’s moody, understated and anticipatory soundtrack (one of his firsts).

COMING UP FOR CAPSULE REVIEW OR RE-POSTING OF UPDATED REVIEWS
Layer Cake
One False Move
Hell or High Water
Point Blank
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
The Long Good Friday
To Live and Die in LA
Internal Affairs
Menace II Society
City of Industry
The General
The Limey
A History of Violence
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Eastern Promises
In Bruges
Blue Ruin
The Long Goodbye

In America (2002) directed by Jim Sheridan • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

Ireland week continues in the Filmvetter household. Tuesday was Philomena. Last night, In America. Between them, I’ve crammed enough emotion in the pit of my stomach to fashion a golf-ball-sized tumor.

At least with Philomena, there were respites, where I could alleviate my welling up with some levity between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

Not so last night. I’ve seen many movies with incredibly poignant scenes and heartbreakingly rendered familial dynamics. There are scenes in Terms of Endearment that still create a lump in my throat. A friend, without warning, once recommended a Kevin Kline film, Life as a House, that I don’t know whether it was good or bad, but I do know it shattered me. And he knew my particular vulnerabilities. He knew I cried at Cocoon. He knew I cried harder at the Star Trek movie where Spock died, such that my wife was reduced to soothingly (no doubt, eyes rolling, as they should have been) imparting, “It’s alright. He comes back in the sequel.” But no warning was given, and Kevin Kline loses his job and gets a cancer diagnosis in the first 10 minutes, whereafter he reunites with his wayward son, and they build a house and Kline dies. Brutal. I hold the recommendation against him to this day.

I digress.

Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot) portrays an Irish family escaping a tragedy to come to New York City in 1980. The parents, Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton, each deal with the loss in their own way; he shuts it off and turns inward, she insists the tragedy in no way hurt her daughters. They land at a run-down tenement where the drug addicts inhabit the stoop and an artist neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) screams and pounds the wall, plagued by his own tragedy. Given their innocence, their assimilation is nerve-wracking (the most harrowing scene being the playing of a carnival game) and uplifting, as they integrate into a community that is alternatively welcoming and hostile. It ends as an unforgettable fable, which allows for acceptance.

It’s the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen. I know I had seen it before, but I didn’t remember much of it, which seems impossible. I now assume it was so heart wrenching and piercing the first time that I probably wept uncontrollably and then did everything I could to ban it from my consciousness. Sheridan wrote it with his two daughters after his own personal tragedy, and their pain and tribute is stitched in the film’s marrow.

The performances are flawless (Morton and Hounsou were Oscar-nominated). The two girls who play the daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) give the most natural turns I’ve ever seen.

A gem.

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My father introduced me to The Magnificent Seven when I was 7 years old.  We were channel flipping, and we sat back on his big red sectional and settled in with a bowl of candy corn and circus peanuts.  He told me the music was Elmer Bernstein doing Aaron Copland (he used to wake me and my brother up with “Fanfare for the Common Man” blasting from the hi-fi speaker set tailored made for a newly divorced man) and that the picture was based on a Japanese film. These tidbits were of no particular interest to me at the time. I was too busy trying to figure out who of the seven gunmen I wanted to grow up to be, and as the film progressed, I became increasingly alarmed at the potential demise of any or all of them. Indeed, as aptly put by one fan, “This is the sole reason we spent half of our preadolescence prancing around our houses with plastic guns, cowboy hats and an overwhelming desire to become heroes. Just like them.” 

50 years later, I have come to the somewhat disheartening realization that I grew up to be none of the characters.  Certainly not Yul Brynner, the cool as a cucumber King of Siam refashioned as a man in black.  Nor Steve McQueen, the steady, wry “talker” of the crew (I can talk, but rarely in McQueen’s pithy homilies). 

I never neared the lanky, laconic quick draw that was James Coburn, who utters the coolest line in film history

It gets no better than that, at 7 or 57.

Nor was I the brawny, decent Charles Bronson; the gold-greedy, laugh-having Brad Dexter; or the hot-headed kid who idolizes the crew (Horst Bucholz).  Now, there are times I have felt as cowardly and unsure as Robert Vaughn, but in reality, I ended up being none of those dudes. 

Half a century later, where mowing the lawn and an occasional campout are as close as I get to the frontier, I feel more like Wallach, who runs into seven hired guns who all found Jesus at the same time. Wallach can’t comprehend his bad luck. His last words, to Brynner:

“You came back for a place like this. Why? A man like you? Why?”


If you don’t know the film, the plot is simple.  Six professional gunmen and one wannabe sign up for a pittance to protect a poor Mexican town that is being repeatedly ransacked and worse by a band of thugs led by Wallach.  It is the best of 60s Hollywood.  Strong characters, tight dialogue, solid action, sweeping cinematography, a rousing score, liberal sentiments (“You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground”) presented in conservative reality (“We deal in lead, friend”), and, to boot, a girl and a boy fall in love

Two asides.  First, one has to hand it to director John Sturges for dexterous casting.  A Russian Brynner plays a Cajun, and proud sons of Berlin (Bucholz) and Red Hook (Wallach) play Mexicans. Ah. Simpler times.

Second, they loosely re-made this picture and the result was a filmic carbuncle.

On Hulu and sporadically, everything else.

Win A Copy Of The Gentleman On Blu-ray - Life of Dad - A Worldwide  Community of Dads

Guy Ritchie doing what Guy Ritchie does best, this is a rollicking, smart and often times hilarious caper film. The cast is fantastic, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) personifies the modern meld of sexy and capable, the soundtrack rocks from the opener and Hugh Grant, who I used to deride as a pouty, hair flipping, mincing one-trick pony, shows why he is perhaps one of the best character/lead actors around.

On Hulu, Amazon Prime.

The Top Five Nicolas Cage Yelling Scenes in Movies

I had never seen this movie in its entirety, only clips (“MY HAND!!!!” and “Snap out of it”) or a few scenes.  It’s a charming film, made more so by funny and smart performances all around.  Every character, save for John (scene stealer) Mahoney, is an old country-linked Italian in 1980s Brooklyn, so I expected broadly comic, and there are some such scenes.  But for the most part, the film eschews “Mama Mia!” and instead, provides opportunity for Cher, Nicholas Cage (his weird instincts and passion are transfixing), Danny Aiello, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, William Hickey and others for a little introspection, some intelligent mugging, some surprising underplaying, and some truly tender moments. 

The picture feels almost like a long-running and beloved stage play.  I guess that makes sense, given it was written my renowned playwright John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt”).  Shanley snatched the Oscar for best original screenplay, and while I would have gone with Broadcast News, I’m okay with it. 

At 102 minutes, the film is also a shining exemplar of economy.  I laughed, I cried, and I didn’t need to go to the bathroom. 

Currently on Showtime.    

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This film is now on the HBO rotation and I surprised myself when I realized I hadn’t reviewed it. It is an exceptional picture, a crisp and intelligent thriller.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm. But he’s no legal eagle. Rather, he’s a “fixer “, a guy who can get you a heads up on an indictment or bail out the son of a big client for a drunk and disorderly. Clayton also happens to be a gambling addict with a host of debts.  This is Clooney’s best role. There’s not a hint of his bankable but often annoying, self-satisfied “you know, I’m acting” grin.

His entire persona aligns with the disappointments of his endeavors. As a fixer, he is anything but glamorous or intrepid. When called to the home of a major corporate client after being oversold by his managing partner, Clayton has to firmly tell the man (who has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run after drinking and likely engaging in infidelity) that his talents are pretty pedestrian — the client needs a good criminal lawyer and Clayton “likes” someone local for the job. When the fuming and underwhelmed client taunts Clayton with, “A miracle worker. That’s Walter on the phone twenty minutes ago. Direct quote, okay, ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker’”, his response is a summation of his self-worth: “Well he misspoke . . . There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.“

Clayton’s game is poker, which, of course it is, because it is the only game where the winner can take your money and humiliate you in the process.  

Still, Clayton maintains a resolute decency and innocence as he is enveloped by a conspiracy involving the law firm’s largest client, its’ ambitious and single-minded general counsel (Tilda Swinton) and the firm’s mercurial wiz litigator (Tom Wilkinson), who  goes off his meds and imperils both the corporation and the firm. Clooney is almost pathetic as he feigns sophistication while asking the firm’s managing partner if, in fact, there is something truly insidious about the corporation. A perfectly cast Sydney Pollack replies, “This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?“

This is a legal thriller that more than meets both bars. The story is engrossing and writer-director Tony Gilroy must have spent some time in a modern law firm, because he has the milieu, the patter, and the casual arrogance of the place down cold. Big time law firms are funny places, populated by very smart people who convince themselves they are priests, and damned if they don’t attract their own sort of worshipful congregations.

Nominated for Best Picture in 2007, unfortunately for Gilroy and the film, the same year as No Country for Old Men.

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I don’t think that there is a series of movies I enjoy more. Like The Trip (to the North of England), and The Trips to Spain and Italy, taking a road sightseeing and culinary tour with Rob Brydon Steve Coogan is edifying and hilarious. More than a travelogue, Michael
Winterbottom’s films are studies in culture, cuisine and history, through the eyes of two very smart and silly narcissists, the kind of friends who probably only see each other once or twice a year but effortlessly fall into the same knowing patter. It is easy to settle in to watch their conversation and one-up imitations (both actors are skilled impressionists and constantly battle each other with competing bits).  Each man is the only important audience member.   Restaurant and hotel staff and lunch and dinner guests run the gamut from confused to overwhelmed to a tad put-off. However, as the films have progressed, Winterbottom increasingly allows family and romantic situations to enter, often with poignant results, particularly here. Beautiful film.

Image result for jojo rabbit

Taika Waititi’s children’s fable is a wondrous achievement, a beautiful story of the primacy of love in an era of hate, and a rare edifying film that can be enjoyed and appreciated equally by parents and children.  The year is 1944, and JoJo is a zealous member of the Hitler Youth at a time when for Nazi Germany, the end is nigh.  So complete is JoJo’s fealty to National Socialism that he has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi), who guides him through the insults and indignities of adolescence while keeping JoJo’s eyes on the greater menace.  For Jo Jo, the former includes being a weakling in his Hitler Youth contingent, a deceased sister, and a missing father.  The latter is the omni-presence of true vampires in his daily life, said vampires being Jews.  Until JoJo realizes that not only does he have his own Anne Frank in residence, but his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is not the committed Nazi he once revered.

There are traces of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in Waititi’s parable, and even a little bit of Roberto Begnigni’s Life is Beautiful, but the kitsch and pathos of those films are muted.  The Nazis are broadly comic, from the disaffected leaders of Jo Jo’s Hitler Youth squad (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen) to the local Gestapo (Stephen Merchant), to Hitler himself, a gossipy, anachronistic cartoon of a cohort who engages a brain-washed JoJo in the manner of a Valley Girl on Snapchat.

Waititi has a deft touch with child actors, a skill shown here as well as in his hilarious and moving The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  He depicts them not as precious or wise beyond their years, but rather, as they are, low on guile and high on instinct and snap judgment.  Even in his film What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi treats his characters (New Zealand vampires who are the subject of an MTV-esque “The Real World”) as silly teens (though they are, of course, thousands of years old), negotiating house tensions, competition with werewolves, and the internet with easy hurt and immediate wonder.  The results are always piercingly funny and clever.

Critics either explicitly or implicitly evince discomfort at the use of Hitler for such silly purposes (“a sugary fantasy in the most unlikely places…But in the process, it buries the awful truth” or “Waititi’s silly, irreverent performance takes the pomp and vigor out of the blustering Fuhrer, declawing the towering 20th century figure of hate. However, in doing so, he declaws his own satire, too”).  These takes are both unsurprising and depressingly easy, but if you think Hitler is simply too monstrous to lampoon, you are forewarned.

Even if it is a bridge too far, I strongly recommend you traverse it.  This is a beautiful, satisfyingly quirky coming of age film, natural and notable for its sweetness.  I’m not sure if it was the best film of last year, but it is the one I enjoyed best.